Family keeps McGraw Fertilizer strong
Southern Leavenworth County's ongoing transformation from agricultural to suburban means some farm-related businesses have gone by the wayside.
But one business that's still going strong is McGraw Fertilizer.
The business is headquartered about six miles south of Tonganoxie. The firm provides fertilizers and herbicides for crops, as well as for lawns.
Owners Bill and Jean McGraw are retired now. It's been more than 40 years since they set up shop with their Tonganoxie fertilizer business. However, they look back with pride at the business they established and nurtured to make it grow.
Ultimately, their business, and others like it, paved the way for a modern agriculture that obtains higher yields with less labor. There may be fewer farmers in Leavenworth County now than there were 40 years ago. But because of advances promoting the use of mass-applied fertilizer and herbicides, the farmers that remain are able to farm more ground.
The McGraws were pioneers in forging a new agricultural trend. Until the early 1960s, fertilizer was only sold in bags. About 40 years ago it became available in bulk. Suddenly, five or six tons of fertilizer could be loaded in a truck and spread on fields in a short period of time and with less labor than before.
Bill and Jean McGraw began selling -- and spreading -- bulk fertilizer in 1963.
"I had the first fertilizer truck," McGraw said of his start in this area. "It was an easier way to do it than carrying the bags."
Reno farmer Jim Grinter was one of McGraw's first customers.
"He weaned me off of bag fertilizer where we had to handle it by ourselves," Grinter said. "And those were 80-pound bags back in those days."
McGraw would test the soil and blend it with the required mixture for the soil, Grinter said.
Grinter said he was impressed with McGraw's ability to spread fertilizer from a truck. McGraw, a lifelong farmer, also had previously held a second job in which he drove a gravel truck and spread gravel. His on-the-job training helped when he began spreading fertilizer on fields.
"He spread it better than these guys do today that run with a GPS," Grinter said.
About the mid-'60s, herbicides -- chemicals used to control weeds in fields -- grew in popularity. The. McGraws began selling and applying bulk herbicides as well. This made as big a difference as the truck-spread fertizlizers, Grinter said.
"We didn't have to cultivate anymore," Grinter said. "It was a labor-saver for us. He (McGraw) was part of that revolution that came through here."
The "revolution," Grinter said, was the advancement of agricultural technology, more specifically, the service of spraying fertilizers and herbicides.
"Which was still kind of innovative to a lot of us at that time," Grinter added.
The fertilizer business took off.
And, as Bill and Jean McGraw embarked on their new venture, their son, Mike, was in his teens and old enough to take over some of the farm work.
"I started farming the land around and his business has growed and growed and growed," said Mike, who now farms ground throughout Leavenworth County with his son, Travis.
Mike already knew how to farm, having been raised on the farm northeast of Tonganoxie. His father taught him the profession.
"He's always been very knowledgeable about everything in agriculture, and that's what we were so involved in," Mike said. "He kept up to date with agriculture."
Mike inherited agricultural roots from both sides of his family. His mother's late father, Bill Young, has been pictured in Kansas history books.
"He was the very first man in Kansas to own a corn picker," Mike said.
Where Lincoln slept
Bill and Jean McGraw, who are 83 and 81 respectively, married 60 years ago. They met at Tonganoxie High School. He was a senior, she a freshman. Jean had started life in North Carolina. While she was a child, her family moved to Logan County in western Kansas where her father, Bill Young, farmed. But the Dust Bowl thwarted his plans.
"It would just come blowing in and get dark," Jean said of the clouds that shrouded everything in darkness and ultimately contributed to her father's death. Dust pneumonia took her father's life, Jean said, and she and her mother moved to Tonganoxie.
In the Tonganoxie area, she attended various one-room schools, often riding to school on a horse.
"Everybody rode horseback in those days," Jean said, smiling. "It was the mode of transportation for a lot of them."
Bill grew up on a farm near where he lives today. As a boy, he milked cows and helped his father farm the land.
Like their neighbors, they lived without electricity or indoor plumbing. It wasn't a hardship, it was just the way it was.
"As a kid, I didn't know any difference," Bill said.
For 20 years of their marriage, from the 1950s to the 1970s, Bill and Jean lived in a house that's older than Kansas, which became a state in 1861. The two-story white frame home, about a half-mile north of 203rd Street and Mitchell Road, was built from native timber in 1854 by relatives of Abraham Lincoln.
During a trip to Leavenworth in 1855, Lincoln spent the night with relatives at the rural Tonganoxie home. A plaque near the road notes the home's connection to Lincoln, who was our nation's 16th president and served from 1861 until his assassination in 1865.
If you can dream it
The McGraw's oldest daughter, Millie Peltzman, is proud of her Kansas heritage. And she's proud of her parents, their ties to the land and their work ethics. But most of all, she said, she's proud of her parents because, as she said, they're good people.
"They're the sweetest people I've ever met," Peltzman said.
And, she quickly added, they're the reason for her success. Peltzman is executive director of the Palo Alto, Calif., branch of United Bank of Switzerland, a global financial firm.
Peltzman completed her formal education when she graduated from Tonganoxie High School in 1970. Yet she holds the type of high-level executive position to which many college graduates strive.
Peltzman said her success would not have been possible without the lifelong influence of her parents.
Like her brother, Mike, and younger sister, Roxie, who died in 2003, Peltzman grew up on the family farm north of Tonganoxie. And like her brother and sister, she was expected to do chores. Mike did a lot of the field work, Roxie helped their mother in the house, and Millie helped her father with the cattle.
A barnyard is an unlikely place to learn about the stock market, but that's where Peltzman's interest in investing took root.
She recalled early mornings helping her father with the cattle. Without fail on weekdays, he'd tune his radio to the morning's financial reports.
"He'd listen to the commodities and then he'd come in and do some hedging on his crops," Peltzman said.
She recalled her mother keeping track -- with a pencil and a spiral notebook -- of the commodities market.
And that was Peltzman's introduction to the stock market.
After Peltzman grew up and wondered what career path she wanted to take, her father made a suggestion.
"My dad said 'Why don't you go down to Merrill Lynch stockbrokers in downtown Kansas City and talk to a broker there,'" Peltzman said. "I did, and they hired me."
Throughout her career -- even during tough times as a woman in a profession dominated by men, she thought she'd hit the glass ceiling -- her father fervently coached her.
"My dad is my hero," Peltzman said, her voice breaking with emotion. "He would say, 'If you can dream it you could become it. Follow your dreams and stay with it."
On top of things
For the McGraws, the foundation of their business was strong. And, according to a longtime customer, much of it was based on their personality traits -- strong work ethics, pleasant disposition and honesty.
Down the road, about eight miles south of McGraws, is Holton Dairy.
The century-old southern Leavenworth County dairy is owned by brothers Kevin, Kerry and Terrence Holton. For the past 40-plus years, the Holtons have relied on McGraws for their fertilizer and crop chemical needs.
Kerry Holton said he appreciated the McGraws' service, as well as the McGraws themselves.
"There was never a more accommodating guy to deal with," Holton said. "We'd get bad spells of weather and everyone would be needing fertilizer quick and by golly, they would deliver on Sunday if that's what it took."
Holton said Bill and Jean "are just great people." And he described Bill as "just a prince of a human being."
Dorothy Lean knows that "prince" pretty well. Lean has worked for the McGraws off and on for eight years.
Bill McGraw is generally pretty quiet, Lean said.
"He don't say much, but when he does he gets his word in, that's how it is," she said.
And he drops by the business he'll tease her, "He'll say, 'I just come in to see if you was still here,'" Lean said.
He keeps track of what's going on, in part by reading newspapers.
"He keeps me up," Lean said. "If he sees something in the paper he thinks we need to know, he'll call."
And McGraw is a father figure to her.
For instance, McGraw attended all but one of Lean's 12-year-old son's Saturday basketball games this year.
"And that one game he didn't make it to, I had to call him as soon as it was over and tell him how they did," Lean said.
Bill graduated from Tonganoxie High School in 1941. A year later, when he was 18, he and a neighbor volunteered for the Air Force. It would be 1 1/2 years before he came home for a visit and 44 months before he finished his military service.
He worked in air transport command, which hauled troops and materials throughout the Pacific Islands.
For several decades after that, he and his bride were tied to the farm. With cattle and crops there was little opportunity for travel.
But later, after the fertilizer business took off and their children were grown, they began to see the world. They started by taking trips with others in the fertilizer business, and later ventured out on their own, or with other groups. Their travels took them from Egypt to Australia to South America. A trip to the Holy Land was one of their favorites.
"To go there, walking in those places you read about in the Bible -- it was quite a feeling," Jean said, noting a friend with them was baptized in the Jordan River. "The Lord was supposed to be baptized in the Jordan River, so it's quite a thing."
But through the years, the couple remained rooted on the same area of Leavenworth County where Bill started his life, and Jean joined him after they married six decades ago.
Even in the county's changing demographics, with farmland being turned into housing developments, the McGraws' business remains strong.
Agriculture has changed. And the McGraws, whom their daughter, Millie Peltzman, referred to as "agricultural pioneers," have played a role in that change.
Longtime customer Jim Grinter described McGraw as "a real fine individual and a man of his word."
The farmers who've done decades of business with McGraw and relied on the business to produce each year's crops deserve part of the credit for the firm's sound establishment, Grinter said.
"I've enjoyed working with him and for him," Grinter said with a chuckle. "I figure I'm part of his success."
More like this story
- Learning about leadership in Leavenworth County
- Kansas City Connection: Dance festival, Big Picnic, Van Halen make braving summer heat worth it
- Basehor ‘gaining traction’ in push for EMS expansion
- Painting the town red, white and blue
- Kansas City Connection: Sorting through the hoopla of the Big 12 tournament